What kind of country will we become? Richer? Poorer? Happier? Sadder? More spiritual? More materialistic? More aggressive? Reclusive? Opened? Closed? More stratified? More egalitarian? More pious? More profane?

I honestly have no idea. I have a pretty good idea of the sort of country I’d like us to become. I’d like us to be even more open-hearted than we already are. I’d like us to be more empathetic and discerning. I’d like us to be freer in body, mind, and spirit. More honest. More self-reliant. Less martial. Less interventionist. More frugal. I honestly don’t care if we’re richer or poorer. That doesn’t mean much to me.

But I’m pretty certain that the decision won’t be up to me and it won’t be up to any one person or even some influential group of people. We won’t be lead there. There won’t be any glorious vision pulling us along in the van of some heroic leader.

I believe our future will be an emergent phenomenon, made up of the millions of little decisions made by normal everyday ordinary people, each striving for his or her own view of the future, rarely choosing the best, always choosing the better as clearly as it can be seen through the fog of uncertainty. Magnificent or banal? I can only hope it will be the former but I wouldn’t be surprised if those who’ve always thought it was the latter continue to think so however magnificent it might be.

I think that’s why I disagree with Tom Friedman’s rather lugubrious
column, something between a lament for vanished greatness and a plaintive longing for a glorious leader:

We need a president who is tough enough to tell the truth to the American people. Any one of the candidates can answer the Red Phone at 3 a.m. in the White House bedroom. I’m voting for the one who can talk straight to the American people on national TV — at 8 p.m. — from the White House East Room.

Who will tell the people? We are not who we think we are. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We still have all the potential for greatness, but only if we get back to work on our country.

I don’t know if Barack Obama can lead that, but the notion that the idealism he has inspired in so many young people doesn’t matter is dead wrong. “Of course, hope alone is not enough,” says Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, “but it’s not trivial. It’s not trivial to inspire people to want to get up and do something with someone else.”

It is especially not trivial now, because millions of Americans are dying to be enlisted — enlisted to fix education, enlisted to research renewable energy, enlisted to repair our infrastructure, enlisted to help others. Look at the kids lining up to join Teach for America. They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, said Shriver, “no one can touch us.”

That’s an America I don’t think I recognize in my friends and neighbors. Not that they won’t participate eagerly in giving others a helping hand. More that I don’t see any great national longing for some single person whose vision will guide us into the future, be he or she newspaper columnist or president.

I won’t bother going into detail critiquing Mr. Friedman’s column, in which he compares Kennedy Airport unfavorably with Singapore’s and, implicitly, the entire country. There are a host of reasons that Kennedy is more run-down than Singapore’s airport. It’s older; it’s used a heckuva lot more; it’s used by a broader swathe of the American people than Singapore’s is of the Singaporan; and, importantly, Singapore is significantly less egalitarian (U. S. Gini index—45; Singapore Gini index—52) and much more authoritarian than we are. Children are beaten there for defacing the pristine beauty of their buildings.

So, come what may, here’s to the hope that we’ll continue to be guided by the errant preferences of the American people, muddling through into a future that none of us can imagine. I don’t need the sort of national greatness Mr. Friedman finds so appealing.

3 comments… add one
  • Sort of an anti-Bill Safire. Safire had a bee in his bonnet about Singapore, but in a negative way. He never had a good thing to say about it. I like Singapore and its people, and I love them as an ally. But in many ways, it’s the anti-America; their problems are ones we’ve been blessed not to have, so their solutions are not models for us.

Leave a Comment